Last Monday, May 11, on what I’d originally assumed would be a night like any other, I received a text message from a friend warning me to go home as soon as possible and lock my doors. A few minutes later, I opened Facebook and was greeted with a deluge of posts stating that there had been a shooting in Isla Vista, and then I thought: “Not again.”
There was an article in the Los Angeles Times that popped up immediately that evening. Given the article’s length, I hoped that it would provide more information than what people were screaming on social media—after all, the LA Times was supposed to be a reliable news source. Instead, all I saw was a sickeningly familiar face and a rehashing of sickeningly familiar events. The worst part was that the LA Times wasn’t the only news source to use this format, and there were too many headlines to count that insisted on tying Monday’s events to the shooting tragedy of last May.
After the initial panic wore off, I felt more angry than afraid—how could these supposedly respectable news sources exploit our tragedy so carelessly? How could they disregard us so thoughtlessly?
According to the Society of Professional Journalists, journalists must be responsible in how they gather and present the information they obtain in words and photos. Above all, their goal should be to minimize harm. Still, these codes don’t stop journalists from extorting their “right” to seek information and record events—and the victims of the covered tragedies are often the ones left to face the consequences.
Did all of these news sources have the right to display last May’s shooter’s face all over the Internet that Monday night and use hundreds of words to describe last year’s events in pointless detail? Technically, yes—especially since it was perhaps the most efficient way to draw attention to our community. But should they have? Not at all.
When it comes to a community like ours that has faced tragedy in the past, journalists need to be mindful of what they publish and consider the impact of partial truths and sensationalism. In times of crisis, we absolutely need access to reliable information—information we will not have if everyone is in a mad rush for publication at the expense of truth, accuracy, and relevance.
The LA Times sensationalized Monday’s events by tying them to last year’s events when there was no connection to begin with—a partial truth. Before the lockdown was lifted, we didn’t get the information we needed—instead, because the LA Times insisted on publishing something as soon as possible, all we got was a reiteration of events that people inside and outside of our community have seen too many times to count from the mainstream media. Thankfully, the article has been edited since it was originally posted, and it now contains more information relevant to Monday’s events rather than last year’s tragedy, but the damage has already been done.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma advocates treating victims with dignity and respect at all times. When writing about victims, accuracy is essential, and journalists should convey only the pertinent details. When covering traumatic events in a specific community, journalists should constantly question what the public needs to know and how much coverage is too much. Bringing up last May’s assailant at every given opportunity is too much, regardless of how relevant it may be at the time.
The tragedy we faced last year does not define Isla Vista as a whole—but if outside news sources continue to drag it up, then people will think that the tragedy is all that we are. It may currently be the most efficient way to draw attention to us, since the memory is still fresh in people’s minds, but journalists need to be mindful of the people within the community who could be hurt when those events are even referenced. We are not the poor, desolate victims that the mainstream media suggests we are. Especially with the one-year anniversary of the last year’s tragedy coming up, it’s important that we show to the world just how strong Isla Vista truly is.